In one of his earliest and most vivid memories, Patrik Laine is practicing his shot. He is standing in the backyard of his boyhood home in Finland, taking aim at four targets that his father had strung to a hockey net: two high, one low-blocker, one low-glove. “Soda cans, sometimes beer cans, whatever cans we had,” Laine says. “Didn’t really matter. Just always try to hit them.”
Years later, thousands of miles away, the approach remains just as simple. Store-bought aluminum has been swapped for NHL nylon, but Laine, 20, still picks spots like few else. Consider all that the Winnipeg Jets winger accomplished in November alone: fourth-youngest player ever to reach 100 career goals, first since Pavel Bure (March ‘94) to score 18 times in a single month, first since Wayne Gretzky (Oct. ‘84) to strike five times on five shots in a single game. “I feel like he’s just naturally one of the more gifted shooters I’ve seen,” says Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne. “He has that swagger about him. It looks almost casual, but it’s just deadly.”
Off the ice, he maintains a steady diet of Fortnite, Call of Duty and other video games with Finnish friends throughout the league, including Panthers center Aleksander Barkov. "He’s just running around, killing people," Barkov reports. "He never really stays in one place." Laine also adheres to a strict tradition of consuming Smarties ice cream after every hat trick, of which he already has logged three this season, including the five-goal explosion against St. Louis on Nov. 24 that netted a local pastor $1 million in a giveaway. "I want to thank God for this gift," the man later told TSN, "and Patrik Laine."
At work, he pummels one-timers from the left faceoff circle on Winnipeg’s power play and sizzles wristers with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release. He also maintains an absurdly high 18.1 lifetime shooting percentage, which would ordinarily portend imminent regression if it were coming from most anyone else. But that is Laine: smasher of cans, breaker of math. “I know I have a hard shot too,” Laine says. “But if you have just a little bit of time, you don’t have to shoot it as hard as you can. You can just place it. I think I’m really good at that, just looking at the goalie and putting it there where there’s a lot—or not even a lot—of room.”
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn following the Jets’ morning skate and Laine is sitting in the locker stall by the door, breaking down the mechanics behind his shot. That night he would be held scoreless for the third straight game, a drought that has since extended to six. Even so, Laine (21) only trailed Alex Ovechkin (25) for the league lead by four goals through Tuesday. So what’s the secret? What are the ingredients? A small smirk crosses his face as he begins.
“I think there’s a lot of good elements,” Laine says. “How quickly can I get the shot off, that’s probably the biggest. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting it in a bad position, just establish your position and shoot it. I think it’s just the quickness with my hands, just being able to get the puck to the right spot and shoot it right away. I don't know where that comes from. It just comes naturally. I think that might be the best asset.”
Indeed, Laine is most often associated with Ovechkin for their similarly booming howitzers on their respective power plays. “It comes off so hot,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler says. “When he rips it clean, I think him and Ovi are the only guys where it looks like the puck gets smaller.” Genetics and talent are largely responsible, of course, but Jets center Mark Scheifele also points to their mutually whippy sticks; Laine generally uses an 87 flex Bauer stick that he modifies to around 80. "When the puck comes off, it's just," Scheifele says, trailing off and snapping his fingers. "Gone."
Still Laine is less of a volume shooter than his longtime idol, averaging roughly three fewer minutes and one fewer shot per game. And while Ovechkin often overpowers opposing netminders with raw strength, Laine is especially adept at dragging pucks toward his body and releasing them at crafty angles. “It’s hard for me to define,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice says. “I’ve never seen a guy get [shots] off in different places ... with as much heat as he gets it off.”
For this reason alone, the Jets have all but quit drilling their power play at practice. “Because the puck comes over to him and three guys run away from the net,” Maurice says. “And rightfully so. The goalie sometimes too.” Now in his sixth season behind the Winnipeg bench, Maurice was famously captured on a hot mic during the second round last spring against Nashville, barking at Laine to “f------ move your feet, kid.” Seconds later, Laine stepped into a wrist shot that teammate Paul Stastny redirected for a goal.
“Or do that,” Maurice replied. “Do that.”
The rest of the league is equally impressed … and just as mystified about how it all works. “Yeah, I mean, if I would know everything about it, I would probably have the same shot as him,” says Barkov, recalling how Laine always stuck around after practices with the Finnish national team to shoot “200 more pucks than anyone else.” Though Barkov does not fill the goal-scoring role on Florida’s power play, he still frequently studies Laine’s man-advantage shifts in the hopes that he can discover some new technique or method.
“Of course, there’s been a lot of goals that he’s dangled defensemen and stuff like that,” Barkov says. “They’re nice too. But I’m just amazed by his shot and every time he scores a goal, I’m like, ‘How does he do it?’ Of course, everybody wants to have a shot like him.”
The craziest part is, Laine might actually object to labeling himself as some sort of obsessive craftsman, forever aiming at soda cans in his backyard. Asked for his offseason shooting regimen, he all but shrugs: “Eh, I don’t practice at all. It comes naturally and I feel like it’s pretty good, so it’s not something I feel like I need to focus on that much. Obviously you can improve everything, and I want to do that with my shot, but there are still a lot of things I need to focus more.”
Certainly the Jets will be better if Laine continues progressing in the defensive zone and at even strength; that they have won five of six during his current goalless stretch is an encouraging sign. But the third-year pro has pretty much reached his peak potential as a premier offensive threat, finishing second behind Ovechkin for the league lead in goals last season. “He’s truly a home run hitter and that’s rare in this league,” Wheeler says. “If you’re down a goal, or a tie game, having a guy like that who can score on demand, or shoot one from inside the blue line and it’s got a chance to go in, what a luxury to have that on your team.”
Since arriving as the second-overall pick behind Auston Matthews in the 2015 draft, only Ovechkin (107) has scored more often than Laine (101). Thirteen years older, the Great Eight also happens to lead Laine by 531 in career tallies … not that Laine gets intimidated by a challenge. “I’ll try to catch him,” he says of Ovechkin, casual with a hint of deadliness. “I feel like I have a pretty good shot as well.”